What's next for Pasco County? Grow as agritourism destination

Editor's note: In thinking about "What's Next For Florida,'' UF Senior VP Jack Payne, leader of the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, opines about what he envisions for Pasco County. 

Pasco County can remake itself as an agritourism destination where visitors flock to U-pick farms, shop for locally produced olive oil, and get a close-up look at milk and ice cream production.

It can reimagine its transportation to integrate improved roads, bike paths and pedestrian walkways in a carefully considered plan for moving people from A to B. Pasco’s eastside “food deserts” could recede beneath the success of a community garden that makes fresh produce available to folks who currently are reliant on convenience stores for much of their diet.

It’s an ambitious agenda, and it’s just dreams right now. But part of the reason the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) has such success in building communities is that we help communities believe in themselves.

It happened in the story we call “Clamelot” – how UF/IFAS Extension work contributed to the economic revival of Cedar Key into a clam farming capital. It happened in Live Oak, where IFAS Extension brought together and inspired local leaders to invest in remaking their community after the devastation wrought by Tropical Storm Debby in 2010.

About a year and a half ago, Whitney Elmore gave up her tenured professor post at a university in Georgia to become the urban horticulture Extension agent in Dade City. She’s responsible for lots of day-to-day programming, but as Pasco County Extension director she’s also dreamer-in-chief for nearly half a million residents.

Here’s why you should believe in Whitney’s ideas:

Whitney is already taking concrete steps to put her vision into practice. This summer she’ll host the county’s first cottage industry expo to help spark agritourism. She’s gone to the county transportation director to connect her with UF experts in that field. And she’s building relationships with civic organizations that can help make the community garden a reality.
She knows that achievement starts with big ideas. She has a character trait common to achievers -- her fear of failure is overcome by her fear of failing to try.

She has few of the inhibitions that prevent people from taking action. She asks for the resources she needs -- and doesn’t mind asking again if she doesn’t get a yes the first time. She doesn’t worry if her plans sound far-fetched. She even proudly displays in her office a photo of herself with Donny Osmond.

The long, proud history of IFAS Extension as a friend of the farmer can sometimes obscure our great work building modern communities. We’ll always stay true to our agricultural roots, but the communities we serve range well beyond ranches and groves.

Florida needs to grow crops, yes, but it needs to grow its communities.

I’d argue that IFAS Extension will get you the biggest bang for your buck on that front. Just consider what Whitney is already doing in a 65-year-old warren of cramped offices and a staff that is still at recession levels. She’s essentially performing two full-time jobs -- one teaching about plant husbandry and the other doing the planning and administration functions of a community leader.

One last thing makes Whitney’s ideas a good bet. The Pasco County Commission -- which itself knows a thing or two about stretching a dollar -- backs Whitney and is seeking ways to help her do more to help Pasco.

We’re hopeful that a year from now we’ll be inviting the community to a new Extension home in a renovated county building where we can better accommodate classes and even host some of the strategy meetings that Whitney sometimes can’t get to off site.

And in five years, we hope that Pasco will look much more like it looks inside Whitney’s head right now.

Jack Payne is the University of Florida’s senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources and leader of the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. 83 Degrees Media invites opinion columns of 600-800 words describing what you would like to see next in Florida's future and how to get there. Comments? Email 83 Degrees.
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